Stallone in ‘Meathead Begins,’ also known as ‘Paradise Alley’

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Sylvester Stallone. ()
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Simon Abrams

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The all-American, regular-Joe persona that Sylvester Stallone has honed over the last three and a half decades can be seen in one of its purest incarnations in Paradise Alley. Written and directed by Stallone, Paradise Alley shows the beginning stages of the Stallone character: the self-made mook, the hard-working local kid who made good.

But the key difference between Stallone's persona in Paradise Alley, a period wrestling pic, and later Stallone-led dreck like Over the Top, a film in which Stallone wins over his prissy, estranged son by defeating sweaty, burly men in an arm-wrestling competition, is that Paradise's Stallone is still learning how to be himself.

Stallone's identification with Cosmo Carboni, a silver-tongued hustler, marks him as a green wise-ass who has still got some maturing to do. And he does it by proxy, through his naive, good-natured and very strong younger brother Victor (Lee Canalito) and their introverted older brother Lenny (Armand Assante, in his debut role).

Paradise Alley, which screens this Saturday night at 92YTribeca, could easily be retitled Meathead Begins.

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Filmed two years after Rocky but before Stallone was a real mega-star, Paradise Alley kicks off with a pseudo-balletic rooftop foot race between Stallone and some nameless thickheaded, barrel-chested thug. Here, Stallone decisively tells us that he is the hero of his own story. This grubby display of athletic prowess establishes that, as Cosmo boasts later on to his brother Victor, he can put his money where his mouth is.

Cosmo may be a schemer but right from the start, we see that he's more lazy than incapable. This is the first sign of Stallone's represented inexperience. There will soon be many, many more.

Take for instance the sweat-drenched arm-wrestling contest Cosmo talks Victor into engaging in. Lenny and Cosmo are the angel and devil hovering over Victor's head. Lenny tells Victor not to risk his health for the sake of winning a performing monkey for Cosmo (yes, really; Cosmo needs the monkey for one of his many get-rich-quick schemes). But Cosmo, sans pitchfork or Mephistophelian goatee, pushes Victor to do it, do it, win the monkey, just do it. Victor calmly makes his own decision, saying he doesn't mind the risk and will in fact win his brother a monkey. And, after a ridiculous, almost life-or-death level contest of wills and triceps, Victor triumphs.

Victor isn’t really the star of this sequence. Stallone is always his own foremost concern. Victor is just the platonic ideal that Cosmo learns to aspire to. Victor is physically strong and spiritually generous while Cosmo is a cheap, fast-talking bum who's always looking to take the easy way out. He knows he needs to become more like Victor. But he's not ready to accept that burden of personal responsibility.

The notion of repositioning Stallone's character as a neophyte to Victor's saint-like Charles Atlas is striking. Here in "Paradise Alley," he's inhabiting the same role that many of Stallone's sidekicks would in his many subsequent starring vehicles. But this time, Stallone is the one learning from the morally upstanding muscle man's example. It's a role that doesn't really suit him. But seeing the Italian Stallion play a cheap, garrulous neighborhood guy on the rise is also weirdly fulfilling, even it doesn't make much sense.

For example, Cosmo and Lenny randomly swap roles as scheming enabler and cautious caregiver once Victor decides to become a professional wrestler. Up until this point, the roles of the Carboni brothers are fixed: Victor is the hard-working up-and-comer who's too smart to be duped, Cosmo is a bad influence and Lenny is a sulky, Byronic antihero.

But once Victor steps into the ring, in a bout officiated by Joe Spinell (later of Maniac! fame), Cosmo and Lenny swap places. Lenny becomes the opportunistic so-and-so that Cosmo is, at this point in the movie, trying not to be. This change could conceivably be because Cosmo has just been rejected by Annie (Anne Archer), a professional dancer and "bed-warmer," as Cosmo gracefully puts it. More importantly, Annie dumps Cosmo for Lenny, with whom Annie had previously had a relationship. But that romantic triangle doesn't seem to have more than a glancing influence on Cosmo's relationship with Victor. Still, Lenny accurately puts Cosmo down as being "only in it for the money." And from then on, Cosmo mysteriously shows concern for Victor's well-being while Lenny keeps pushing him back into the ring against bigger and tougher opponents.

Stallone doesn't do much with the Carbonis' rivals, an Irish family of hoods made up of Stitch (Kevin Conway, strutting around with two fang-like gold teeth) and his ginger-haired toady brothers. Stitch's clan is set up as a negative reflection of the Carbonis but Stallone doesn't follow through on that concept.

While Victor's final fight winds up being with Frankie the Thumper (Terry Funk), one of Stitch's brothers, Stitch doesn't really do anything that proves just how much more morally bankrupt he is than Cosmo used to be or Lenny currently is. The only under-handed thing Stitch suggests that Frankie do is to use a vague, thumb-related technique on Victor. This isn't drastically different from Cosmo's usual advice to Victor, which is to use a mysterious "Ice Box" technique.

Those details don’t really matter in the end. Victor beats Frankie, Cosmo learns his lesson, and Stallone is on his way to becoming a regular-guy movie hero.